Goodbye, Melanie! Mehdi Hasan on the Spectator's departing blogger

Phillips leaves the Spectator as the complaints pile up.

Poor ol' Melanie Phillips. In today's Guardian, the Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi goes on the offensive:

"I don't read her, actually. I call her Mad Mel," Lady Warsi says of Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who has denounced her as "stupid".

Last week, Phillips announced her departure from the Spectator, where she has been blogging for the past few years.

On 16 June, under the headline, '"My blog's new home", she wrote:

This is my last blog post for the Spectator. I have decided to expand and develop my own website over the coming months and so if you would like to continue to read my blog you can find it at Melaniephillips.com.

But was this a voluntary or enforced departure? The blogger Guido Staines beat me to it but I can't help but notice how the Spectator has had to apologise to Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, on its website this week, after a blog post by Phillips made "false" allegations about Crooke's past. Phillips's decision to move on might just be a coincidence but a well-connected source tells me that the payout to Crooke cost the Spectator "tens of thousands of pounds" and left Fraser Nelson and Andrew Neil "furious" with her.

Here's the full text of the apology on the front page of the Spectator website:

An apology to Alastair Crooke

A blog by Melanie Phillips posted on 28 January 2011 reported an allegation that Alastair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, had been expelled from Israel and dismissed for misconduct from Government service or the EU after threatening a journalist whose email he had unlawfully intercepted. We accept that this allegation is completely false and we apologise to Mr Crooke.

Crooke is a former member of MI6 who has long been the subject of vitriolic attacks from the UK's neocon brigade for having the temerity to suggest that a) we should consider talking to, and negotiating with, Islamists, and (b) all Islamists aren't the same.

He wasn't, however, the first person to be smeared by Phillips. Remember this apology to Mohammed Sawalha, of the British Muslim Initiative (BMI) group, on the Spectator website in November 2010?

Mohammad Sawalha: Apology

On 2 July 2008 we published an article entitled "Just look what came crawling out" which alleged that at a protest at the celebration in London of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, Mohammad Sawalha had referred to Jews in Britian as "evil/noxious". We now accept that Mr Sawalha made no such anti-Semitic statement and that the article was based on a mistranslation elsewhere of an earlier report. We and Melanie Phillips apologise for the error.

To lose one legal case to the "Islamist lobby" may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness -- especially since Phillips's husband, according to his own website, "is Britain's best-known commentator on the law". Perhaps, in future, she should run her blog posts past him before she hits "publish".

But "Mad Mel" shouldn't feel that bad. She isn't alone on this. Blinded by their monomaniacal obsession with Islamists under every British bed, members of the UK media's neoconservative faction have been the subject of other (successful) legal complaints and libel actions in recent years.

Stephen Pollard -- the current editor of the Jewish Chronicle who has, in the past, tried to portray me as an anti-western extremist on Twitter -- had to apologise to the London-based Muslim organisation, IslamExpo, after he described it as a racist group that promotes genocide in a Spectator blogpost in 2008.

From the Spectator website, August 2010:

Islam Expo: Apology

Stephen Pollard and the Spectator apologise for the unintended and false suggestion in a blog published on 15 July 2008 that Islam Expo Limited is a fascist party dedicated to genocide which organised a conference with a racist and genocidal programme. We accept that Islam Expo's purpose is to provide a neutral and broad-based platform for debate on issues relating to Muslims and Islam.

Pollard and Phillips have now both moved on from the Spectator, leaving its editor, Fraser Nelson, free to spend his cash on his editorial budget rather than on the magazine's legal budget. I'm sure he'll be delighted.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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PMQs: David Cameron finds his way past Jeremy Corbyn's 4-5-1

The Prime Minister has finally got to grips with Jeremy Corbyn's new approach. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s best performances come when he speaks with the voices of others. Going for the traditional attacking and braying of PMQs leaves him badly exposed, allowing David Cameron to attack him on 30+ years of articles for the Morning Star, appearances on Russia Today, and any number of unsupportive remarks from Labour politicians, both retired and currently in Parliament.

“If JC attempts any kind of cut and thrust *at all* he will get shredded by DC for his own various positions,” reflected one of the team tasked with briefing the Labour leader before PMQs. Corbyn’s new approach to PMQs – of bringing public questions – have a double bonus: they are a living embodiment of the “new politics” that the Islington North MP promises and they make it much harder for Cameron to reply by attacking Corbyn’s record.

It’s a defensive tactic, but the occasional win in the old style is more than wiped out by the damage to Labour and Corbyn by allowing Cameron to play “Red Scare” in the House.

It’s no coincidence that Corbyn’s better PMQs have come when he uses the new-style and his worst when he attempts the old. Until today, the Prime Minister has seemed flummoxed by how to respond to the Labour leader’s use of real people at the despatch box.

But today he finally managed one, skilfully re-appropriating “Rosie”, a young Londoner who is being hit by the capital’s skyrocketing property and rents, in order to praise the government’s record – such as it is – on housebuilding. If you look at the small print, Cameron’s answers left much to be desired: he talked about people like Rosie working to pay the housing benefit of others, a benefit that largely goes to people in work. He praised a fairly indifferent record of housebuilding – that falls far short of where Britain’s housing stock needs to be even to stand still.

However, the Labour leader was incapable of pinning him down. With the old approach to PMQs a non-starter against Cameron, and the Prime Minister finally finding a way to live with the new style, a third way may have be found. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.